Northrop F-20 – The Tigershark That Went Extinct
In the history of military aviation, an oft-repeated tale is that of the superb aircraft design that is not accepted into general service and remains to aviation enthusiasts a major example of what might have been. One contender for inclusion in this ever-widening club is the F-20 Tigershark from the Northrop Corporation, a light fighter of such superlative qualities that many commentators still lament the sad fact that this wonderful aircraft was never adopted for service anywhere in the world.
The F-20 program showed great promise but was scuppered by government fumbling, a restrictive tender process and an utterly ruthless American competitor with formidable lobbying powers.
The Tigershark was a development of Northrop’s F-5G program, which was a project started by the company to compete in the FX fighter competition of the late 1970s. The F-5G program was initiated by Northrop to investigate new engines and avionics being fitted to their F-5E Tiger II light fighter, and the new aircraft exceeded all expectations with its increased performance and capabilities.
The program morphed into the F-20 concept and showed enormous promise in both economical terms and performance, but the private nature of the program and some confusion caused by conflicting American priorities caused the F-20 project to not progress beyond prototyping and testing.
The Tigershark eventually lost out to the F-16 Fighting Falcon for USAF orders, and the foreign powers that originally planned to purchase the F-20 lost interest and chose other aircraft instead. Northrop officially cancelled the Tigershark program in 1986.
Design and Development
In 1961 the US government initiated a program to supply cheap but potent fighter aircraft to allies around the world, in a bid to combat the rising influence of communism. In April 1962 the Northrop contender in this program was selected and became known as the F-5A Freedom Fighter.
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This unofficial program was formalised as the International Fighter Aircraft (IFA) program as a result of the widespread introduction of the MiG-21 Fishbed, and Northrop commissioned an upgrade of the F-5A to introduce radar and the ability to carry infra-red seeking missiles into combat.
This new design, the F-5E Tiger II was announced as the winner of the IFA competition in November 1970.
In the late 1970s, Taiwan was asking the US for a fighter capable of shooting radar-guided missiles, but in an effort to court the mainland Chinese, the Carter administration would not allow the sale of American combat aircraft to Taiwan. The Taiwanese were advised to seek a radar-capable upgrade of the Tiger II, which they were already producing under licence.
Northrop initiated a program to upgrade the radar in the Tiger II, and the resultant F-5G program also started to test new power plants to increase the performance of the airframe.
The FX program commenced in January 1980 to replace the IFA project, and Northrop started a further upgrade of the F-5G design to compete for this contract. The twin J85 turbojets of the F-5 were replaced with a single GE F404 turbofan, which was the same power plant used in the F-18 Hornet and the SAAB Gripen fighters.
The resultant increase in performance was astounding, and with a new multi-mode radar fitted the resultant aircraft was starting to attract serious interest in America and elsewhere. The USAF approved the formal designation of F-20 in 1982, and the name ‘Tigershark’ was adopted in 1983.
With the inauguration of the Reagan administration in 1981 restrictions on the sale of US combat aircraft were lifted, and the FX program lost a large amount of relevance but was still allowed to progress with further testing.
Two further prototypes were constructed, and a rigorous flight-testing regime was undertaken. Washington still wanted an affordable and capable fighter for some allied nations to employ, and nations like Morocco, Bahrain and the Republic of Korea expressed much interest in the aircraft to the extent of putting in small orders, but this was dependent on the F-20 being accepted for US service, even if in a limited capacity.
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Some nations who had contemplated the Tigershark began to order F-16s instead, and the sales program to market the F-20 internationally was the responsibility of the State Department, as required by the terms of the FX program.
This caused considerable aggravation at Northrop, as all marketing material had to be submitted to the government for endless review and modification, but the corporation decided not to rock the boat too hard, as the USAF was taking interest in a Northrop project that would eventuate as the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber.
The last hope for the Tigershark program was the possibility that the aircraft would be selected for two small but significant US procurement projects. The F-20 was offered by Northrop to compete for an Air National Guard (ANG) fighter program, and the aircraft was regarded with great interest, as the ability of the fighter to be scrambled at very short notice was a prime requirement in ANG fighters.
But as the F-16 Fighting Falcon was already in service with the USAF it was decided to adopt this aircraft for the ANG as well, in a bid to lower operating costs.
Another promising chance for the Tigershark was to be procured for the USAF and the USN to act as ‘Aggressor’ aircraft in Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT) roles, and the high performance of the F-20 made it a good choice in such a role.
But while the USAF expressed interest, the Navy revealed that they had selected the F-16 for this role, and the USAF eventually followed suit. It was rumoured that Lockheed sold F-16s to the US Navy at a knockdown price to keep Northrop out of the market. As US contracts were no longer contemplated, the few foreign customers for the F-20 selected other aircraft instead and the F-20 program was cancelled in 1986.
As the F-20 was an evolution of existing light fighters, it retained the modest dimensions of the Freedom Fighter and Tiger II, but its performance figures were an order of magnitude superior to the earlier aircraft.
The airframe was not in any way the recipient of any stealth technology, but the small size of the F-20 ensured it had a reduced radar signature anyway. Conversely, its modern multi-mode radar made the Tigershark a dangerous adversary in the air, and the superb performance provided by the afterburning turbofan meant that the F-20 was a nimble and formidable aerial combatant.
The height of the Tigershark is 13 feet 10 inches (4.22 metres), its length is 47 feet 4 inches (14.4 metres) and the wingspan measured 27 feet 11 inches (8.5 metres). Empty, the airframe came in at 11,810 lbs (5,350 kg) and the loaded gross weight was 16,015 lbs (7,264 kg). The Maximum Take-Off Weight of the F-20 is 27,500 lbs (12,470 kg). The aircraft had a crew of one, though two-seater versions for training and multi-role use were planned for manufacture.
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The F-20 was equipped with a single General Electric F404-GE-100 afterburning turbofan, which is rated for over 17,000 pounds of thrust with afterburner. This gives the Tigershark excellent performance figures: a top speed of Mach 2 or 1,320 mph (2,120 km/h).
The aircraft is fitted with a cartridge start system for emergency and austere field operation, and the time from engine start to taxi was an astonishing 22 seconds. 90 seconds later the F-20 could be at 50,000 feet altitude, and the Tigershark was much cheaper to procure and operate than the F-16 and was four times as reliable as nearly all contemporary fighters.
The F-20 had internal tankage holding 5,050 pounds (2.290 kg) of fuel, and this gave the F-20 an operational range of 620 miles (1,020 kilometres) and a ferry range with drop tanks of over 2,300 miles (3,750 kilometres). The service ceiling of the Tigershark is 56,800 feet (17,300 metres) and the airframe is rated to 9G+ for manoeuvring. And thanks to powerful engines an excellent power-to-weight ratio of 1.13.
The Tigershark is fitted with the General Electric AN/APG-67 multi-mode radar, which can operate in both the air-to-air and ground-attack roles. The F-20 is equipped with two M39A2 20 mm autocannons, with 280 rounds for each gun supplied.
The airframe is fitted with 7 hard points, which can carry a total load of 8,000 pounds (3,600 kilograms) of ordnance or drop tanks when extended range is required. The F-20 is capable of carrying and employing nearly every weapon in the US inventory, and as such can carry air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles, guided and unguided bombs, unguided rockets, or a combination of any of these.
The F-20 had one staunch champion and spruiker in the shape of aerospace legend Chuck Yeager, who was a legendary combat and test pilot of nearly mythical status. Yeager continually promoted the aircraft with great enthusiasm to prospective buyers and was bitterly disappointed when the program failed to secure any firm orders.
People who insinuated that Yeager was motivated solely by financial reward were silenced when Chuck Yeager lavishly praised the Tigershark in his biography – which was published three years after the F-20 program was terminated. An oft-repeated statement is that if such a distinguished aviator was so enthusiastic about the Tigershark, maybe the USA should have procured the aircraft, as no one could disparage Chuck Yeager’s ability to evaluate the merits of any combat fighter.
The F-20 Tigershark is a tale of potential unrealised, a wonderful and excellent aircraft being denied its place in the history books, and the power of greed and corruption to run counter to national interests.
If the F-20 had been procured, further development may have seen it transform into an even more deadly combat fighter, and a Tigershark with some stealth enhancements, an AESA radar and an F414-grade engine (maybe even with thrust vectoring?) would have been a potential and logical upgrade path, similar to enhancement programs for the Gripen and Super Hornet currently in progress.
Only one F-20 airframe exists today, hanging in the main exhibition hall of the California Science Centre in Los Angeles.
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Ironically, the Tigershark is very popular in the virtual world, and several online games and programs like Microsoft Flight offer the F-20 as an in-game option, including in a variety of colour schemes and national markings. Such is the legacy of this wonderful design for a high-performance fighter, which sadly never existed in the real world, but probably should have.
- Crew: 1
- Length: 47 ft 4 in (14.43 m)
- Wingspan: 27 ft 11.875 in (8.53123 m) with wing-tip missiles
- Height: 13 ft 10.25 in (4.2228 m)
- Empty weight: 11,810 lb (5,357 kg)
- Max takeoff weight: 27,500 lb (12,474 kg)
- Powerplant: 1 × General Electric F404-GE-100 afterburning turbofan engine, 11,000 lbf (49 kN) thrust dry, 17,000 lbf (76 kN) with afterburner
- Maximum speed: 1,147 kn (1,320 mph, 2,124 km/h)
- Maximum speed: Mach 2
- Range: 320 nmi (370 mi, 590 km)
- Service ceiling: 56,800 ft (17,300 m)
- Combat ceiling: 15,000 ft (4,572 m)